I’ve had a longtime interest in consumer issues. For many years I operated a consumer advocacy service. In the past, I would encounter an interesting consumer rights case every few months. Now there are sometimes several incidents per week just of my own experiences. I plan to periodically write a summary of encounters that seem worth sharing.
One success I’m proud of is taking on Apple about 10 years ago, in April 2003 when they launched their music service which advertised songs for 99-cents. Many songs were available 99-cents, but some were overpriced. To purchase the song “American Pie” it was necessary to buy the entire album for about $10. I successfully negotiated with the Apple in-house legal counsel to make “American Pie” available for 99-cents to everyone. There was no personal award or benefit to me, other than the satisfaction of the accomplishment. I had other similar victories over the years.
More Difficult to Win
As you’ll read below, it’s become much more difficult to win in cases that should really require little time and effort. These are cases where a customer is clearly being exploited and abused by companies that put profits over people.
Brokerage Firm OVERCHARGE
A few years ago, I signed up for an app that made micro investments possible. Fractions of stock could be purchased without fees. In June 2022, the company announced a plan to begin charging a monthly fee, and perhaps other fees. Existing long-time members were given an opportunity to pay a one-time lifetime membership of about $20 to avoid the monthly fees. I paid the $20 in June.
In September, a few months later, they began charging me a monthly fee. Since I’d paid for the lifetime membership, I requested a refund for the monthly fee.
They agreed to close my account, and sent me the remaining balance, but said they could not refund the membership fee.
I explained that there should not have been a monthly fee charged since I had signed up for the lifetime membership. They agreed the charges theoretically should be refunded, but said they couldn’t provide a refund since my account was closed.
After pressuring them on the matter, they finally agreed to look into the matter and offered to send a check payment. I’m still waiting to receive the check.
This past summer, I signed up for an upgraded credit card that would provide some useful travel benefits exceeding the annual membership cost. This is a global banking institution — not a recent startup or travel membership club.
I was told the annual fee would be waived for the first year. In September, a few months after having received the new card branding, a bill for $250 showed up on the account. I contacted the bank and was told the $250 was an annual cardmember fee. I explained that the representative who upgraded our account said the membership fee would be waived for the first year.
I asked for a refund of the $250, since I was promised there would be no member fee for a year. I wanted to just downgrade the card. I was told that I could not receive a refund, and that the free first year only applied with new accounts. I explained that it wasn’t my fault if I was told incorrect information when the account was upgraded. Given the unusual situation, I asked permission to record the phone call since a dispute would undoubtedly be required.
I was then told that I could not record the call. The representative said they personally would be fine if I recorded the call, but there is a company policy that says consumers can not have any recording of a conversation with a customer service representative.
I explained that I had asked permission to record the previous call in June 2022, and was given permission to record the call, and that I had a recording of that call which included the promise of no member fees for one year.
I explained that not allowing a consumer to make an approved recording of a discussion seemed to be a violation of consumer rights since the company records all calls for their internal use. It would put a customer at a disadvantage. I explained that I planned to pursue that separately as a customer rights issue.
A few minutes later I was told the policy had been changed and that recordings of calls by customers would be okay. I asked where I could find this in writing online, and was told it’s not in writing online for anyone to see, but only internally viewable as policy. Then I was told I could record the phone call.
Eventually, once the call was being recorded and the customer service representative knew I was not going to let go of the issue easily, I was told that I could receive a credit for the $250, and that I could downgrade the card for no fee.
Only after significant effort was I given a refund of the fee.
Grocery Store Sells Old Food
Last month, after returning home from the grocery store, we noticed that some flour we purchased was going to expire in a few days. The expiration date on this brand of flour is usually 12-months in the future, so that suggests the bag we were sold had been sitting on the store shelf for a year.
I took the bag of flour back to the store for a refund. The person working the checkout register said they could not give me a refund. I explained it was purchased just two days prior and showed my receipt. They explained that it was sold at a discount because it was close to the expiration. Since it was a cooking and baking ingredient, I said it would be unlikely that anyone would use it up in just a few days. At least, we were not going to use it that quickly.
I asked to speak with a manager and explained they are selling year-old bags of flour. The manager said they have a policy of no refunds on marked down clearance items.
I decided to call the corporate offices for the grocery store. I explained what happened and was told that there is never an exception to their no refunds policy. They said I should have known about the no refunds policy because it is printed on the receipt. I explained that once a person has the receipt, it is too late to be informed about a no refunds policy. They said the policy was on a certain page of the company website. I explained that customers are not going to read entire websites to learn about return policies before checking out. They said the policy is printed and displayed at the registers. It isn’t. I have photos. They said the policy is displayed on the shelves where the clearance items are. It isn’t. I have photos. It was a long phone call, and became clear they would not budge on this policy. They agreed to send me a $5 coupon, which is only a fraction of what we were charged. I never received it.
I then reported the incident to the Better Business Bureau. I also pointed out that I’d been charged the full price for the clearance item instead of the price marked on the item. I provided a copy of the receipt and photos documenting the various issues of missing signage. After several days, I received a reply from a representative of the company offering to send $50 as compensation for the year-old bag of flour and to cover my time and effort. I’ve not received anything from the company yet.
Restaurant Grumpy Cook
In September, we went to a restaurant, and one of the cooked items was served cold. We asked the server if it could be heated up and cooked a little bit more. They said they would see what could be done.
We assumed the issue was being taken care of. A short while later, the cook came out to our table, visibly upset, and insisted that the food was cooked.
There was no apology. No offer to cook the food more or heat it up.
It was an unpleasant and unusual situation. I gave the restaurant a fair review based on a number of factors, including some positive aspects, but did mention that odd behavior of the cook.
I looked at some of the 1-star negative reviews for the restaurant and saw that other people had similar experiences there.
Bad consumer experiences are becoming more frequent and worse in severity. We are seeing multiple layers of complex hurdles consumers need to jump through to get problems resolved. Despite being told no several times, eventually if a person perseveres they can get what they rightfully deserve. These problems come from more companies putting profits over people. It harms consumers, harms employees, and harms the long-term respect for the companies that are exploiting people.
I plan to keep reporting on consumer issues from my own experiences.
In addition to consumers struggling to get treated fairly, small businesses are also struggling to compete with huge corporations like Amazon that steal product and marketing ideas for unfair advantage. The video below from CNBC on 12 Oct 2022 explains this problem in greater detail.